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EPA, USDA push farmers to use coal waste on fields

December 22, 2009
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According to the Associated Press, the federal government is encouraging farmers to spread a chalky waste from coal-fired power plants on their fields to loosen and fertilize soil even as it considers regulating coal wastes for the first time. The material is produced by power plant "scrubbers" that remove acid rain causing sulfur dioxide from plant emissions. A synthetic form of the mineral gypsum, it also contains mercury, arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says those toxic metals occur in only tiny amounts that pose no threat to crops, surface water or humans. But some environmentalists say too little is known about how the material affects crops, and ultimately human health, for the government to suggest that farmers use it on their land. The EPA is expected to announce its proposals for regulation early next year, setting the first federal standards for storage and disposal of coal wastes. EPA officials declined to talk about the agency''s promotion of FGD gypsum before then and wouldn''t say whether the draft rule would cover it. Instead, the agency released a statement saying the heavy metals in the material are far less than the amount considered a threat to human health. Field studies have shown that mercury, the main heavy metal of concern because it can damage development of the human nervous system, doesn''t accumulate in crops or run off fields in surface water at "significant" levels, it said.
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